The IUP Crimson Hawks are getting down to crunch time.
IUP has five games remaining in the regular season, starting with Wednesday’s trip to California (9-13), which dealt the Hawks a 59-56 loss on Jan. 18. That was IUP’s second straight loss in its only setbacks of the season, and the Hawks have since reeled off five straight wins.
Every game is big for a team in IUP’s position, and each one is magnified as the regular season winds toward its conclusion. The Hawks always set their sights on a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship, and they have won three of the last four. They also have claimed four straight division titles.
For IUP (19-2, 9-2 PSAC West), the division race heats up this week with the game at California (9-13, 4-8) followed by Saturday’s home game against second-place Gannon (14-8, 9-3), which dealt IUP a 67-61 overtime loss in Erie on Jan. 15. Home games against third-place Mercyhurst (12-9, 8-3) and Edinboro (9-12, 2-9) follow. The regular season concludes Feb. 26 at fourth-place Slippery Rock (17-7, 8-4).
“The greater the challenge the more excited you are to try to rise up and face it,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said. “As players, they can see the end of the race coming, and they have a greater understanding of how important each game is. Sometimes, with 12 or 14 to play, it’s harder to feel the sense of urgency internally, and it’s harder for the coaches to impact that sense of urgency externally with the mindset to have that sense of urgency.”
IUP suffered its only losses while shooting a season-low 37 percent from the field in each game. The Hawks have topped 55 percent in each of their last three games, blowout victories over Pitt Johnstown, Clarion and Seton Hill in which they fueled their offense with dribble penetration in the half court and a newly found transition game. They shot a season-high 57.1 percent in Saturday’s 77-51 romp over Seton Hill.
“I’m happy with where we’re at moving forward,” Lombardi said, “and I know the guys will be excited about going down to Cal on Wednesday and coming home for a three-game homestand. It’s an exciting time for us, and they made it that way, every game being a real big game for us, and as a coach I’m just grateful to be in that position.”
In the first game against California, IUP missed a half-dozen layups in the first half and faced its largest deficit of the season, 13 points, late in the second half before rallying to make the game close. IUP missed two shots inside the final 45 seconds that would have tied the game.
“We know we owe them because we lost to them,” junior point guard Devante Chance said. “It will be a good test going down to their spot, and we’ll just start to get ready for it at practice (today).”
The first game was IUP’s worst performance of the season, and the Hawks have since rebounded, breaking their losing streak at Edinboro before returning home to knock off Slippery Rock in a 66-64 thriller in front of more than 3,100 fans, the third-largest crowd in the three seasons IUP has been playing at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex.
IUP has fueled its late-season run behind the consistent play of leading scorers and seniors Marcel Souberbielle and Mathis Keita, Chance at point guard and the emergence of Brandon Norfleet, a sophomore guard who has averaged 20 points per game in the last three outings.
The Hawks also have been getting consistent play off the bench from redshirt sophomore center Devon Cottrell, redshirt freshman guard Manny Yarde and graduate student and guard Jesse Bosnik. Cottrell and Yarde combined for 20 points Saturday, and Yarde has turned in two straight games in double figures. He had career highs of 11 points and seven rebounds against Clarion.
“We just have to go down to Cal and play hard,” Yarde said. “We need to play like we always play and not change our game for anybody and try to change the outcome.”